S.D. native who started driving ambulances 43 years ago being honored for his service

By John Wilkens

Originally published December 5, 2012 at 12:01 a.m., updated December 4, 2012 at 8:29 p.m.

Scoop and load.

That’s what emergency workers did back when Gordy Anderson started, 43 years ago. They’d get into an ambulance that was little more than a station wagon with a siren on top, hurry to the scene of a car accident or heart attack, put the patient in the back and rush to the nearest hospital.

“You’d try to stop the bleeding if you could, but that was about it,” Anderson said.

CPR? Paramedic? Trauma center? What’s that? A first-aid class was the extent of his training.

That changed, of course, and keeps changing. Every year brings new equipment and techniques that improve the chances of survival for people injured in places where medical help has to come to them — no small thing in a nation where trauma is the leading cause of death for people under the age of 45.

Anderson is a dispatcher now with the San Diego branch of American Medical Response, a private ambulance company that serves Chula Vista, Imperial Beach, La Mesa, Lemon Grove and several rural fire districts. At age 63, he’s proud of the improvements in a profession he helped pioneer here. And proud that one thing hasn’t changed.

“We take care of people,” he said. “That’s what we do.”

Today, at a luncheon in San Francisco, Anderson is being honored with a community service award by the state Emergency Medical Services Authority. Earlier this year, in Washington, D.C., he received the Star of Life, a national honor, from the American Ambulance Association.

“A lot of people since 9/11 got into this business not to help people but to be heroes,” said Thom Hillson, who works for an ambulance company in Colorado and has known Anderson since the early 1970s. “They get separated out pretty quickly. They can’t imagine the kinds of things we see and do.

“You might get a call from an 80-year-old woman who’s having trouble breathing and it turns out her husband died two weeks ago after 32 years of marriage. She called 9-1-1 because she needed someone to talk to. Some people resent that. But somebody like Gordy, he understands. He calls off the ambulance, sits down with a pot of coffee and talks to her.

“It takes somebody special to tolerate that — to not just tolerate it, but embrace it. Gordy is that kind of person.”

Memorable calls

Anderson was on duty in 1978 when a PSA jet collided with a Cessna and crashed in North Park, killing 144 people. He was on duty in 1984 when a gunman shot 40 people at a McDonald’s in San Ysidro.

But ask Anderson about his most memorable calls and he talks about a cancer patient he transported from a hospital to a clinic for radiation treatments. In the beginning, she was in so much pain she recoiled when Anderson touched her bed. Some 30 treatments later, she was well enough to ask the ambulance crew to drive by her house so she could make sure her husband was watering the flowers.

He talks about being sent to Campo, out on Old Highway 80, for a rollover traffic accident. The injured driver wasn’t able to move his arms and legs until Anderson put him in traction. Except there were no traction devices available then, so Anderson sat at the end of the gurney and pulled on the patient’s head while they transported him to a hospital in El Cajon.

“I remember telling myself I can’t let go because if I do he’s going to be a (quadriplegic),” Anderson said. The driver recovered, walking out of the hospital under his own power.

The big, spectacular cases are exciting, he said, but “often those are not the times when you can make a difference. The PSA crash, the McDonald’s shooting — there’s just not much you can do in a situation like that.”

Anderson was born at Balboa Naval Hospital and went to high school in El Cajon. He got to know a couple of ambulance drivers who came into the bowling alley where he worked. They took him on a ridealong.

“It kind of got in my blood,” he said.

He rode in ambulances for about a decade. In the early 1970s, he was part of the county’s first Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) class, taught by two physicians eager to bring to civilian life the lessons medics had learned on the battlefields of Vietnam.

“Our level of expertise went right through the roof,” Anderson said. “We got exposed to equipment and practices we’d never seen before. It became more of a profession. You were no longer an ambulance driver. You became an EMT.”

He became a supervisor and eventually moved into communications, in part to get away from the grind of working five 24-hour shifts in a row, 20 shifts a month. (It’s about 10 shifts per month now for paramedics.) “Nobody watched the call load back then,” Hillson said. “I’d sometimes handle 25 calls in a 24-hour shift, and I’m sure Gordy did, too.”

As a dispatcher, Anderson keeps more regular hours — handy while raising four kids, now grown — and gets to manage the call loads so ambulance crews don’t burn out like he did. He mentors new hires, telling them, “If your desire isn’t to take care of people, please don’t be here.”

In his off-hours, the Chula Vista resident sometimes teaches CPR. One recent weekend, he and other volunteers taught 500 people at a local church. “That’s 500 more opportunities walking around out there of being able to save a life,” he said.

A paycheck, too

Some rescue calls still haunt him, especially ones involving children.

“There are things that you just don’t want to think about,” Anderson said. “There are streets I drive down where I’ll go around the block because I don’t want to go by a certain house or place because there are things that I remember.

“There are times when you wish you could just do more when you had the opportunity. And there are times when there was nothing you could do. That’s the thing we have to remember. There are times you could be the best at what you do in the world and you’re just not going to make a difference.”

But mostly what he feels now, in this year of being recognized with state and national awards, is blessed, he said. He has a job that introduced him to a colleague who became his wife 30 years ago. It’s a job he still likes so much that most days it doesn’t feel like work.

“I get to go home knowing I’ve been able to help people,” he said. “And I get a paycheck?”

He chuckled softly, the days of scooping and loading long gone.

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